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The WHO’s new Berlin research hub aims to spot the next pandemic in the making

September 1, 2021, 1:56 PM UTC

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the world is not great at rapidly spotting and tackling potential pandemics before they achieve that status. So the World Health Organization has set up a new hub in an attempt to better coordinate global responses when pandemics loom in the future.

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence was inaugurated Wednesday in Berlin. The German government is giving it an initial investment of $100 million, and it will be led by Chikwe Ihekweazu, the current director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

A primary aim for the hub is to quickly advise public health experts and policymakers around the world when urgent decisions are needed. Public and private sector organizations, researchers, and others will also collaborate to make new, A.I.-driven predictive tools for analyzing data.

“The world needs to be able to detect new events with pandemic potential and to monitor disease control measures on a real-time basis to create effective pandemic and epidemic risk management,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. “This hub will be key to that effort, leveraging innovations in data science for public health surveillance and response, and creating systems whereby we can share and expand expertise in this area globally.”

“It lies in our hands to make [the COVID-19 pandemic] the last global health crisis of this extent,” said Jens Spahn, the German health minister, at the inauguration.

“The faster we identify new infectious disease risks, the faster we can respond,” said Mike Ryan, the WHO’s health emergencies chief. “None of this is possible without better data, analytics, and insights.”

Cash aside, why Berlin?

The WHO already has a very close relationship with the city’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI), which is Germany’s main epidemiology and public health organization and an adviser to countries around the world. It’s the WHO’s “collaborating center” for emerging infections and biological threats, for global outbreak alert and response, and for viral hepatitis and HIV.

Indeed, the hub’s launch was accompanied by a new memorandum of understanding between the WHO and the Robert Koch Institute. “RKI scientists will be working alongside leading WHO experts and other global partners here in Berlin to better predict, prevent, detect, prepare for, and respond to worldwide health threats,” the institute said in a statement.

Berlin’s Charité university hospital, one of Europe’s biggest, also has a notable epidemiology department.

At the inaugural event, Spahn described the WHO hub as “new ground in pandemic preparedness” that would stimulate a “a vibrant ecosystem of global health supporters and activists.”

“This is the first hub of its kind, yet more is needed worldwide, at least one per continent,” he said, before reiterating his call for China to “become fully cooperative” in the quest to identify the COVID-19 pandemic’s source.

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